How can a curator create a meaningful exhibition based on a collection that goes back almost two centuries and encompasses more than 5,000 works on paper? When Professor of Printmaking Andrew Raftery, a member of the National Academy of the Arts of Design, was invited to do just that, he opted to focus on the techniques printmakers use to depict the passage of time. The result is Visualizing Time: Narrative Prints from the National Academy Museum, an exhibition on view through September 8 at the museum’s Fifth Avenue galleries in Manhattan.
“In my own practice as a maker of narrative engravings, I know that deciding how to present the element of time is as important as the actual subject,” Raftery explains. “Yet my approach to temporal depiction – both in the appreciation of works by other artists and in my own prints – is primarily intuitive.” In curating this show, he resolved to see what he could “learn from [taking] a more analytical approach.”
Raftery painstakingly selected 35 narrative prints from the museum’s collection – created between 1830 and the present – and categorized them according to temporal techniques rather than by chronology or period. It’s an approach that helps viewers make connections instead of overwhelming them with an avalanche of ideas.
“The unavailability of literal motion in a painting or print actually makes the attempt at temporal depiction that much more dramatic and poignant,” Raftery writes in the exhibition catalogue. “Indeed, the artist’s very endeavor to represent time in a timeless medium creates a link and bond between the artwork and the spectator.”
One of the poignant moments captured in the exhibition is seen in Ann Chernow’s 1995 etching Do Nothing Till You Hear from Me, which depicts a worried young woman reading a letter, while her mother grips her arm and reads over her shoulder. Raftery includes the work in the category Shared Stories, in which the situation depicted is so deeply ingrained in our collective consciousness that we can automatically fill in the details about what happened before this moment and what will likely happen next.
Among the other categories Raftery identifies are Anticipation, Aftermath, Characteristic Activity, Direct Address and Layered Narrative, where multiple moments are seen in one image. The pieces he classifies as Narrative Sequence use multiple images to tell a story. For example, in a three-image series called The Last Judgment (created in 1987), Warrington Colescott presents a humorous narrative about the result of living a life of sin. In the first intaglio print, viewers see passengers on an airplane that is seemingly in trouble. The second and third images show angels and devils escorting the passengers – now dressed in matching gray sweat suits – to a bank of video monitors beside a fiery pit, where they will presumably watch snippets of their best and worst behaviors in life before learning their ultimate fate.
The beauty of Raftery’s approach in curating this exhibition about how artists depict the passing of time is how effortlessly it travels through time. For instance, he groups Colescott’s 1987 series with a mid-19th-century print by James Smillie and one from 1949 by Lynd Kendall Ward.
“What especially intrigued him – and delights us,” notes Diana Thompson, an assistant curator at the National Academy, “are the connections that unexpectedly emerge between different generations of artist and artistic tradition, evident in each printmaker’s visual strategies as well as in how the contemporary viewer comprehends the visual narrative.”
As a National Academician, Raftery contributed one of his own prints to the exhibition as well: June: Training a Passion Vine, a new engraving he classifies as a Characteristic Activity piece – one that captures a familiar, repetitive action in midstream. Like the other prints in the show, it “reveals a persistent strain of visual storytelling in American prints… [that] transcends the profound and varied changes in style and subject matter” in the last 200 years. “The dimension of narrative time provides us with fresh interpretive tools as we unlock the complex content of these works,” Raftery concludes.
Raftery will present an ARTalk in conjunction with the exhibition on Friday, July 26 at 3 pm.